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Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman Made for an Outstanding Grammys, but the Show Has Forgotten How to Spotlight New Artists: TV Review Print-ready version

by Chris Willman
Variety
February 5, 2024

Christopher Polk/Variety; Rich Polk/Variety

The 2024 Grammys will inspire a good deal of next-day debate among viewers. And that debate will be over: Which was the more moving comeback performance, Tracy Chapman's or Joni Mitchell's?

Life is good - and awards shows better than they have a right to be - when the hot post-telecast topic is which legend most tugged at our heartstrings with an unexpected return to the television spotlight. A huge reason why the 66th annual show will likely be considered the best Grammys in several years is the one-two punch of Mitchell and Chapman - the two artists the world was most eager to see come back from distressingly long sabbaticals. Exec producer Ben Winston's success in landing both in one year provided a level of sentiment unlikely to be matched in any Grammys telecast soon, short of the producers convincing Bobbie Gentry she needs to un-retire and do the show, too.

With two performances like these, the Grammys almost didn't need to put on anything else to be considered a success. But the other three and a half hours of the special left plenty of room for being judgy about the dozens of non-valedictory moments. There were the things that clicked - like Billie Eliish, the epitome of class; or Miley Cyrus, the epitome of brash, with her upswept bangs and even more uppity attitude; or the real wrecking ball that was Jay-Z's am-I-making-you-nervous-yet? freestyle of a speech. There were the things that didn't, like U2 phoning in a bit from Sphere that just proved some of the best live experiences really aren't transportable to television. You had some moments that sat somewhere in an interesting middle, like SZA going all-out in making "Kill Bill" her version of a Tarantino musical, while risking making the stuntwork the star.

And then, with all the heartening attention to the veterans who stole the show, there was something lacking in it at the other end of the demographic scale: new blood. Looking at the lineup of eight nominees that were up for the best new artist Grammy this year, you'd have to include it was as interesting and diverse a lineup as that category has seen in years, with some true starpower. Yet not one of those eight contenders was invited to perform on the show, even though Jelly Roll, Ice Spice and Noah Kahan rank among the commercially hottest artists of the past year. Victoria Monet's seven nominations cemented her current cultural cachet but weren't enough to earn her a performing slot. And although the War and Treaty would certainly not produce any ratings bump, if they were put on the telecast for three minutes, they'd probably be stars overnight - an impact that would be well-remembered long past any concern about padding the show's epic running time.

Outside the new artist category, Boygenius' six nods weren't good for time on the show, either, even though they're the biggest new rock-band phenomenon of the last few years. Hard to understand why none of these acts were on the show, unless there's an overwhelming anxiety about booking any act that hasn't didn't rise to fame some time in a previous decade. Locking out newer acts from performance slots doesn't make a great statement about the supposed health of the music industry. (Across three and a half hours, Olivia Rodrigo was the only artist booked who's had her big breakthrough since the turn of the last decade.)

Yet if we're given a choice between this and MTV's flavor-of-the-moment-filled VMAs, it's not hard to understand why producers and viewers alike will favor time-tested favorites, whether we're talking the big artists that came up in the 2010s or those who go much further back. Like, a duet between Stevie Wonder and the late Tony Bennett? Like a lot of people, I'm there for that... even if it turns out their chemistry doesn't totally transcend the great divide. Or how about Billy Joel, closing the show with an old song and a new one? You may be right in thinking we won't immediately turn that off and go to bed - although Trevor Noah may have overpromised and underdelivered in vowing that Joel's brand new song, "Turn the Lights Back On," billed by the host as Joel's first new single in 30 years, was "worth the wait, absolutely worth it." Three decades' worth of worth it? Honestly? (Actually, it's only Joel's first in 17 years, but who's doing math, 200 minutes into a show?) Maybe in looking behind, the Grammys should have quit while they were ahead.

But what a glorious pair of retrospective performances those Mitchell and Chapman segments were. Let's focus first on the duet between the original "Fast Car" singer and its recent interpreter, country star Luke Combs. His cross-format smash of a cover seemed destined not to ever draw Chapman out of the seclusion, or seeming retirement, she's enjoyed for a decade and a half, even though she would relay her approvals and appreciation to Combs' camp or the outside world by proxy. Once word got out a few days ago that she would indeed perform with Combs, fans still couldn't help but wonder: Was she giving in to popular demand to return to the limelight enthusiastically, or begrudingly?

No one can peer into her mind, but this we know: She looked as unassumingly beatific as you would have hoped she'd look, and a few peaceful shades of grayer. Although a few tweeters grumbled that Combs should have stepped aside and let Chapman take the spotlight all by herself, it's clear that this is what she wanted, since she could have come back and performed "Fast Car" any time in the last 16 years if she felt like it. There was a mutual respect and humility between these two intergenerational stars, on top of their voices just sounding unsurprisingly great together. And separately: Combs did let Chapman have the first and last word in the duet. Chapman's reasons for eschewing almost all public appearances remain somewhat mysterious, but if the graciousness she exhibited in coming back and sharing a moment with a truly earnest acolyte didn't make you want to cry, you don't deserve "Fast Car."

Mitchell was similarly brought back into the spotlight by the enthusiasm of a superbooster, Brandi Carlile. The world has had a little time to get used to that idea, thanks to a very intermittent series of "Joni jams." But given the tiny percentage of people who've experienced those performances live, you could imagine casual fans still being a little nervous about how she'd be on a stage now, after her aneurysm nine years ago. Everyone finally got to see for themselves: Mitchell has a new voice, accessing the clean, lowered tone she had in the period before her health crisis, now somehow made a little richer by its closer proximity to vulnerability and wisdom. As Mitchell was surrounded by her musical support system, a cozy-looking community of accompanist friends - including Allison Russell, Jacob Collier, Lucius, Blake Mills and, of course, Carlile - we didn't just get back a performer we feared had been lost to us. We got a living emblem of music as we-take-care-of-our-own community.

Elders were also honored in the In Memoriam medley, naturally. Besides Wonder serenading and joining in with a projection of Bennett, there was Annie Lennox paying homage to Sinead O'Connor, by way of Prince; some thought the tribute should have come via an actual O'Connor composition, but that's no hill to die on. The capper to the segment was Fantasia doing her best Tina Turner impression on "Proud Mary - a pretty solid one, Fantasia appropriating not just the late legend's voice but even the distinctive movements of her trillion-dollar thighs. After Fantasia dressed down in her riveting turn as Celie in "The Color Purple," she deserved to put on the big heels (not that Tina's stilettos aren't an invitation to just as much hard work).

I've previously raved about U2's residency at Sphere in Las Vegas, but I worried whether it was a good idea to translate it into a few minutes on a Grammy telecast, and nothing about the way it played out put a rest to my fears. Whoever put together their segment - filmed largely with drones and edited like an action movie - didn't put much effort into pretending it was truly live, with visual backgrounds from different parts of their show that didn't match up. It didn't read as a straight performance of "Atomic City" so much as a sizzle reel, designed to sell tickets for a residency that's already long sold out. Audiences generally see through pre-recorded awards-show performances, and this one felt like a missed opportunity to highlight either the band or the venue, if the latter is even possible in a defiantly 2D medium like TV.

Dua Lipa's opening medley of her two most recent singles was captivating enough as an opener - though the effectiveness of her Springsteen-style knee-slide toward the camera at the end was undercut by an unfortunate cut away to a long shot before the director quickly brought it back to the Dua closeup everyone wanted to see. Later, Travis Scott's performance never seemed to quite come together, but at least he didn't sneak Kanye in with him, as has been Scott's recent wont, so score that as a win.

Billie Eilish and Finneas are incapable of doing anything but slaying when they do "What Was I Made For?"," even when they do very little in the way of musical expansion or set design - minimalism serves the song well. When Eilish can maintain our interest just by removing her sunglasses, they're getting it right. On the opposite end of the production scale, SZA went full Tarantino with a samurai-filled "Kill Bill," setting what can confidently be called a Grammy record for the greatest number of simulated homicides in a single production number.

Noah's monologue was not something that anyone would claim killed. This was the ex-"Daily Show" host's fourth year as emcee, and clear that his mandate is to avoid causing any offense, a la LL Cool J before him, but with an expectation of some kind of jokes, even if targets are disallowed. That makes for some gags about how no one in the house should hit up Dr. Dre for a prescription for Ozempic, and this sort of thing - a willful creakiness in the material that takes all of Noah's likeable, nonstop energy as a cheerleader and wingman to rise above. When he finally made a joke about the TikTok/Universal Music Group imbroglio, its connection to real life felt like a breath of fresh air... more of that, please.

Anyway, here's to the celebs who did lend a little edge or passion to their speeches or presentations. Jay-Z, most of all, was good for that, during a lifetime achievement award speech that he used primarily to knock the Grammys. His funny admonition to the Academy to "at least get it close to right" may not be practical or enforceable, but watching the rapper-mogul speak his version of truth to power - from his own cranky and mischievous position of power - was still a kick.

Conversely, when Jon Batiste took a moment in his gospel-style tribute to Bill Withers to shout out that "the joy of living is still available to us," it didn't feel corny - it felt just as prophetic as Jay-Z's caustic warnings. That was especially true on a night when Mitchell and Chapman were proving just what a long tail truly spirit-filled music can have.

We know we've got Mitchell back, for as much as she can give us - the frenzied demand for the two Hollywood Bowl "Joni jam" shows that just got put on sale for next October are testament to that. What about Chapman? Maybe she'll decide to kick off her shoes and stay a while, too, now that she put her toes back in. Or maybe she'll go back to the private business of being Tracy Chapman. If so, we'll always have the 66th Grammys to keep her fire burning in our hearts.

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Added to Library on February 5, 2024. (247)

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